New Zealand seeks improvement in 2nd France test
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) -New Zealand's international rugby season reaches an early crossroads when it plays France in the second test on Saturday, with the team leading the three-test series 1-0 and hoping to do justice to the 500th test for the All Blacks.
New Zealand won last weekend's first test at Eden Park 23-13 with a sub-par performance. Fielding an unchanged team, it needs to improve markedly to avoid losing to a strengthened France side.
All Black selectors gambled by including several out-of-form players in their squad for this series, hoping the challenge would lift their performances. That didn't happen in the first test and if it doesn't in the second, New Zealand will be vulnerable to defeat by a team which, over 108 years, has been one of its most difficult opponents.
In naming an unchanged team for Saturday's match, coach Steven Hansen clearly leveled a challenge to his players to lift their personal performance or face the consequences. Players such as fullback Israel Dagg and left winger Julian Savea are under notice that a repeat of last weekend's form will not go unpunished.
Hansen hoped that the first test, which followed two training camps and an unusually long preparation, has allowed his players to get a poor performance out of their systems and will lead to incremental improvements in the second and third tests, and August's Rugby Championships.
"We said last week the game was hugely important. It was what we needed,'' Hansen said.
"We needed to test all the things off the training field and off the whiteboard that we had been working on. Some of them weren't perfect and we didn't expect them to be. What we do expect this time, though, is an improvement.''
While the New Zealand coaches are counting on a noticeable improvement in Christchurch on Saturday, they have also had to work into their calculations the factor that France will almost certainly improve on their competitive first test effort.
France coach Philippe Saint-Andre was forced in the absence of several of his top line players to name a weakened lineup for the first test and that lineup performed well above expectations, particularly in the forwards where it out-muscled New Zealand.
He has made four changes to his lineup for Saturday's test, stiffening key areas, and his second test side has a harder, more experienced and more balanced look.
Frederic Michalak returns at flyhalf to play his 66th test, displacing Camille Lopez who made a sound debut in the first test.
The 33-year-old Nicolas Mas takes over at tighthead prop, adding solidity to a French forward pack which outplayed New Zealand both at set pieces and in the loose during the first test. South African-born Bernard le Roux will make his test debut on the blindside flank, though he brings a solid body of form into the match from which he has ousted veteran Fulgence Ouedraogo. Christophe Samson also wins back a starting place at lock ahead of Sebastien Vahaamahina.
Saint-Andre has further tweaked his backline by moving Maxime Medard back to fullback and switching Yoann Huget to the left wing. He has otherwise resisted major change, retaining the effective midfield combination of Wesley Fofana and Florian Fritz though he had a range of selection options in that area.
France had the better of the All Blacks for much of the first test, scoring first and finishing strongly. But their concentration lapsed in the period before halftime and they let in tries to scrumhalf Aaron Smith and flanker Sam Cane which gave New Zealand an advantage it was just able to defend.
"You can't switch off for two minutes,'' Saint-Andre said. "We let ourselves down for five minutes at the end of the first half (in the first test) when they scored two tries.
"Five minutes we switch off and we lost the game. We know the intensity and tempo will be much higher this week, so we need to play the perfect game but just improve on what we can improve on.''
The All Blacks will need a definitive improvement to hold out France. The scrum should be a solid foundation for their game but for some time now it had been only functional and it will be more severely tested on Saturday than in the first test.
France substantially outplayed New Zealand at the breakdown in Auckland and the New Zealand forwards, particularly flankers Cane and Liam Messam will have to improve in that area to save their starting roles.
Flyhalf Aaron Cruden produced an uncertain performance in the first test: after missing two early penalties he kicked 13 points but his general play was indecisive. He says he will improve on Saturday, but after 21 test matches he should not need a match to work his way into the role.
Dan Carter, who has been forced to miss the first two tests with injury, will almost certainly step back into the starting role in Auckland.
Inside center Ma'a Nonu and Ben Smith, playing out of position on the right wing, were New Zealand's most effective attacking backs in Auckland but they need other players - notably scrumhalf Smith, Savea and Dagg - to step up on Saturday to fire New Zealand's attacking game.
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